(2 Corinthians 11: 21-33; 12:1-9)
God is calling us today to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the very place that the Apostle Paul preached for the first time in Asia Minor. And this, His Speech, is preserved in the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 13:17-41). From here, the Gospel of Christ spread in the wider region. But here the Apostle also received the first persecution when enemies of Christ saw that the city and surrounding villages were filled with Christians. We admire the wonderful personality of the Apostle Paul and his vast work in the East and West. One aspect of his life which particularly impresses us, is that he had experienced so much sorrow in his life and work like no one else. We see this suffering summarized in today’s reading in the Second Letter to Corinth: illnesses, hunger, thirst, cold from lack of clothing and dwelling, exhausting hikes with constant dangers from robbers; slander, persecution by Jews and idolaters; his body was covered with injuries; he was stoned in order to kill him; shipwrecks on his way to Rome, courts, imprisonment for four years; and with all of this, he also had “a thorn in the flesh” (12:7) that constantly disturbed him without leaving.
You would expect all of this to make the Apostle Paul an unhappy, miserable person! Where was the great grievance against God? Words such as: Lord, what have I done to You and why are You tormenting me so? I work for You, to teach people to believe in You! Why are you letting all this happen? When people see me in such a state because of my belief in You, they will be afraid to come near You, to avoid suffering themselves!
However, St. Paul felt none of this in his soul. On the contrary: “I now rejoice in my sufferings,” he writes in Colossians (Colossians 1:24). And to the Corinthians he writes: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). By human logic all of this is strange, but the Apostle Paul set his sights higher. Athletes who aim to get gold medals at the Olympic Games are constantly practicing, working hard, depriving themselves of many things, and do not focus on the pain and hardship. Similarly, Paul sought the highest goals in his life: “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:14). He believed that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). That is why he did not hesitate to say to the newly baptized Christians of Antioch of Pisidia: "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). The Apostle Paul did not say words “according to their own desires, because they have itching ears” as did the false teachers (2 Timothy 4:3). He was not afraid of listening to people with sorrows or persecutions causing them to leave the Church. He was saying what was in accordance with what Jesus had said: “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). And the Lord warned: “strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24).
My brothers and sisters, speaking from here, let us take with us the important lesson that the Great Apostle gave us today with his speech and example. We will have afflictions in our lives. And the Lord said to us, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Treat each sadness as a challenge to fight, with the certainty of victory. As Saint Paisios the Athonite said, my illnesses benefited me more than all the fasts, vigils and exercises of ascetic life. Besides, we are not dealing with sorrows on our own. Christ is always close to us, to empower us. And God’s Word assures us: “God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). So never say: I cannot stand any more. Let us face each sorrow with courage, patience, the will to struggle, and optimism, like the Apostle Paul. So that at the end of our lives we can say: “I have fought the good fight…Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will give to me” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).